Many already know that boxer Muhammad Ali is agile in moving his legs and arms in the boxing arena. But few know that his hands also like to scratch brushes and pens on the sidelines of his time to compete. This week, his rare collection of sketches and paintings is up for auction in New York.
The collection of 24 works of art, mostly in cartoon form and some with his signature, reflects Ali’s interest in religion and social justice. But there are also those who describe themselves as competing in the boxing ring.
“Ref (Referee), he really floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee” was written in the balloon of words that emerged from the mouth of a boxer who was knocked out by his opponent. The opponent appears to be depicted raising both hands indicating his victory.
The painting, entitled “Sting Like a Bee,” was Ali’s 1978 work, while filming the historical mini-series Freedom Road in which he starred, auction house Bonhams said. The painting is expected to fetch $40,000 to $50 thousand in an auction scheduled for October 5.
Bonhams noted Ali’s fondness for drawing was little known to the public. Ali seems to be sketching as a way to unwind after a match or training.
Helen Hall, Bonhams Director of Pop Culture, said, “A lot of people were happy because nobody, nobody knew he was an artist, and nobody knew about this treasure trove of art. So we saw a lot of interest and a lot of excitement.”
Bonhams is one of the owners of the largest collection of Ali’s artworks ever to be submitted for auction, or perhaps even in the world, Hall said.
The paintings for sale are from the collection of Rodney Hilton Brown who worked with Ali on the art. In May, Brown published a book entitled “Muhammad Ali: The Untold Story: Painter, Poet and Prophet”.
The former world heavyweight boxing champion, who declared himself a convert in 1964 at the height of his career, died aged 74 in 2016 after a long history of Parkinson’s disease.
“The Starving Children of Mississippi”, a 1967 painting, depicts a figure in shorts saying “I just want to compete to help feed you poor black children.”
Ali’s other notable works date back to the late 1970s. He made a painting which was later in limited print for sale by the United Nations Special Committee on Apartheid. According to Hall, Ali wanted the painting to voice the strong opposition to apartheid he had witnessed in South Africa and Namibia. In the painting, Ali draws the shape of the African continent and a black man being whipped by a white man. At the bottom of the painting is written “Let My People Go”. But the image of the white man was deemed too inflammatory by the United Nations, which forced Ali to remove it.
Hall said some of Ali’s paintings were autographed, some of which were very large. Ali drew the paintings for the magazine, and they were all highly politicized.
Hall explains, “There’s one that refers to the racially motivated riots in LA and Newark in 1965 and 1967. And this was made in 1967. So obviously, this is what’s going through Ali’s mind. Another painting is devoted to Islam. converted to Islam at the time. And then some of the paintings were lighter in color and related to boxing. There were paintings with spectators around the boxing ring, and they all had sad faces. And he said they were all sad because of the short time he had in winning.” .
“There’s another painting of a boxing ring and lots of dollar signs. And he says, when people ask me how it feels like I’m standing victorious over my opponent, I say I just thought I was going to run to the bank with all the money I made. So , he really has a sense of humor,” added Hall.
Ali’s other works up for auction include “America: The Big Jail,” his 1967 work, and “War in America,” which presale estimates are worth between $25,000 and $35,000. [uh/lj]